March 29, 2015

What did we learn from this World Cup?

That there is a place for proper batsmanship in ODIs, that New Zealand punch above their weight, and that taking wickets wins you matches

The nation of domination: Australia have won four of the last five World Cups © ICC

A World Cup asks questions of the game as well as questions of the teams. So what have we learned about the state of cricket during this one?

The tournament was a success. Good weather, big crowds, a final contested by the two host nations: the 2015 World Cup showed cricket in a good light. The 50-over game, so long static and pedestrian, has certainly evolved. But a parallel question - "How many memorable games were there?" - draws a more muted response. Positive batting and high scoring rates have improved the spectacle but reduced the tension. Few games went to the wire.

Did the best team win?
Yes. Australia were worthy, deserving and engaging winners. The astonishing feature of Australian cricket is how quickly it bounces back. In the 2013 Ashes, Australia looked, well, un-Australian. Eighteen months later, it feels as though the old order, default Australian dominance, has been restored.

Are South Africa chokers?
Not on this evidence. South Africa played with big-hearted ambition and spirit. In the epic semi-final against New Zealand, South Africa, despite making costly mistakes, left everything they had out on the pitch.

There is a difference between choking and losing. Jack Nicklaus, golf's most prolific winner, also came second in more tournaments than any other player. (I know a semi-final is not exactly second place, but you get the idea.) It is not always a disgrace to be close. In literal terms, choking is the inability to perform routine tasks, like a computer suffering from a short circuit. It is a special and rare category of losing, not a term to be used loosely and carelessly. And what is the definition of losing? Losing accounts for 50% of the outcomes in sport. So let's use the proper word.

South Africa threw off the burdensome chokers tag this World Cup © Getty Images

Which team overperformed the most?
The thinking fan keeps two questions in his head simultaneously. The first is: "Who is winning?" and the second is: "Who ought to be winning?" That "ought" does not imply a moral sense of entitlement but a practical grasp of the facts. A more populous, richer sporting nation, with more talent at its disposal, "ought" to beat a poorer, smaller and less cricket-focused nation. If Luxembourg draw 1-1 with Spain in football, it is a good result for Luxembourg and a shocking outcome for Spain.

Now think of New Zealand's World Cup performance in that context. Its population is 4.4 million and much of its best athletic talent is drawn to rugby, the sport at which it is the world leader. As a result, New Zealand cricket must make the very best of every scrap of talent it has. That's why, before the World Cup, I wrote in this column that New Zealand were "the best pound-for-pound punchers in world cricket". On the evidence of this tournament, they now lead that category more than ever. World cricket should be grateful to New Zealand for shaking things up. They won many new friends at this World Cup.

Which team underperformed the most?
This is an easy one, I'm afraid. Given its wealth, population, talent base and resources, England ought to be perennial high achievers on the international stage. Far from it. Instead, England are stuck playing a brand of cricket that simply cannot cut it in the modern era. The average strike rate at this World Cup was 89 runs per 100 balls (up from 62 in 1992); 270 from 50 overs, in other words, is merely par for the course. It was disheartening to hear Eoin Morgan, after England's exit, saying the plan had been "to fight" through to the knockout stage. How about "playing" to the quarter-final instead? Were Morgan's attacking instincts - usually so much more positive and expressive than the phrase he used - dulled by the cricketing culture surrounding him?

Mitchell Starc knows the value of wickets in a batsman-dominated game © AFP

Should the next World Cup contract to ten teams once again?
Absolutely not. The Associates produced plenty of good cricket and some thrilling matches. Cricket needs to expand, not retract. Cricket is routinely described as the world's second-favourite team sport. But the game still faces a stern challenge to retain and expand its position within world sport. We need new faces, different voices and fresh cricketing cultures. While Australia deserve high praise for their resilient and positive cricketing culture, the fact that they have won four of the last five World Cups underlines the need to encourage new international teams. All sports, to a degree, rely on uncertainty and surprise. It won't suit anyone, even Australia, if dominance morphs into monopoly.

Is batting too dominant?
For all the talk of oversized bats and undersized grounds, it was a bowler, Mitchell Starc, who set the tone in the final. The counter-intuitive lesson of this World Cup is that the surest way - perhaps the only way - to stop devastating power-hitting is not canny containment but by fighting fire with fire. Take wickets or get smashed: that is the executive summary.

Is there a place for proper batsmanship in the modern ODI game?
Definitely. David Warner's mindset might be ultra-positive, but the basics of his technique are absolutely sound. Alongside explosive power, Warner's game is also balanced, compact and uncomplicated. The challenge for selectors around the world is not to elevate sloggers who can bully bad teams but to identify proper batsmen with the potential to add new gears to their existing game. England, for example, should be looking to develop batsmen such as Alex Hales, who is capable of hitting good balls for four with relatively little risk. In the final, both Michael Clarke and Steven Smith showed real defensive skill and aptitude as well as flair and aggression.

Brendon McCullum: an aggressive captain, and thank god for that © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Are there limits to "positivity"?
Brendon McCullum, so often the most aggressive of captains, did blink once during the final. When he moved second slip out of the cordon, Warner inevitably edged the very next ball. Ross Taylor dived across from first slip in vain; the ball would have travelled straight to second. Rather than blaming McCullum, we might reflect that some situations are so difficult, the odds so heavily stacked against you, that all the options look unappealing. Keeping the field up looks like suicide. But pushing the field out seems like merely prolonging the agony.

These days, the task of chasing the game - either in the field or with the bat - is deeply unenviable. Just ask England.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on April 2, 2015, 16:05 GMT

    Australia are a team not even other aussies could love. Why can't they behave. If they don't misbehave then turn up the stump mikes.

  • Anthony on April 2, 2015, 13:16 GMT

    I'm and issue with the little New Zealand idea that gets put forward. New South Wales have a population of only a few hundred thousand more than New Zealand, with a great deal of the best talent there being taken up by the two rugby codes. It is the powerhouse that drives Australian cricket, and if they were able to put their own team into the world cup, would most likely have more world cup wins than anyone else, including a rest of Australia team.

  • Jay on April 2, 2015, 3:14 GMT

    The top 4 pool teams reached the semis. Yes, the best team won. OZ outplayed NZ & India comfortably - just as India beat SA swimmingly in a pool game. The NZ-SA match was a cliff-hanger with batting getting the last laugh. More like a comedy of errors than SA 'choking' - with botched catches/run-outs stealing the show. Till the final moments when Elliott snatched victory from Steyn & Morkel! So, what did we learn? Yes, batting is "too dominant"! ICC must remedy oversized bats & undersized grounds. Importantly, restore bat-ball balance by removing fielding restrictions & reverting to 1 white ball instead of 2 new ones. Importantly, ICC must enforce the Code of Conduct! The boorish Aussie behaviour towards the "nice" Kiwis was disgraceful. Haddin's harsh sendoffs crossed the limit. Let's not limit "positivity": Look how McCullum & Co sent off Clarke. Show same respect for Vettori's spirit of cricket! ICC must act: Umpires & match referees must take back control of the game. Just ask NZ.

  • Dummy4 on April 1, 2015, 10:54 GMT

    Geez so many negative comments about Australia winning! I bet if India won again we wouldn't here the end of it! Build a bridge and get over it!

  • Jay on April 1, 2015, 10:37 GMT

    Ed -- Warner a lesson for "proper batsmanship"? Really? He's not even in the top 10 highest scoring batsmen in WC2015. If anybody, it's Sangakkara who epitomises proper batsmanship with his phenomenal 541 runs in just 7 matches (only 6 runs behind leader Guptill in 9 matches) with an incredible 108.20 average & 4 centuries (all consecutive), incl 1 ton against OZ! Compare Warner's 345 runs in 8 matches @ 49.28 & 1 ton. No contest. Sanga represents today's ODI batting standard - with his technique, touch, risk management, mindset & innovation. He just retired from ODIs at age 37, without much fanfare, with 14,234 runs @ 41.98 & 25 tons - second only to the great Tendulkar whose record looks unbeatable: 18,426 runs @ 44.83 & 49 tons. Clearly Warner w/ 2,047 runs @ 34.69 & 4 tons has a lot of catching up to do. If at all! Yet, he gets the headlines, all for the wrong reasons. What about sportsmanship? Warner at 28 has a lot to learn from these two greats. We all can learn too, Ed!!

  • barrie on April 1, 2015, 9:11 GMT

    Not sure the Aussie's have lost their shine from a respect point of view. I think the get as much as what they give - if anything too much pressure is put on their captain/team to change the sledging world order!

  • Dummy4 on April 1, 2015, 2:00 GMT

    I was brought to believe cricket was a gentlemans game. Play hard, play fair, and at the end it is just a game. From the World Champions reaction to winning this game they don't realise they lost the world.

  • Adrian on March 31, 2015, 14:36 GMT

    Of note, South Africa are not the only chokers in World Cups. England, who keep on finishing runners up and never winning it, and now are missing group stages, are much worse chokers than South Africa. And, until 2011, New Zealand had lost more World Cup knockout matches without ever winning any than South Africa had. South Africa are only the 3rd worst chokers in world cricket. England and New Zealand are worse. It is just that, for some bizarre reason, nobody outside of England and New Zealand realises that they are chokers. I think the choking tag for South Africa was more to do with a bit of gamesmanship from Steve Waugh in 1999 than any reality. The only time that South Africa truly choked was in 2011. Every other time, they were beaten by the better team.

  • Thomas on March 31, 2015, 12:50 GMT

    Sorry South Africa, you didn't throw of the 'Chokers' tag and you know it. How many dropped catches and how bad was AB's missed run out? Never mind, an even more emphatic choke awaits in four years.

  • alfred on March 31, 2015, 9:26 GMT

    Been watching world cups since 75, didn't need this one to prove that proper batting applied in 50 over cricket. Wickets always won matches. SA, chokers this time or not, still can't win the games that count. And this wc, apart from a couple games like the sa/nz semi, was boring and predictable... '79 the best ever wc for me.

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